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And Now the News... For the Humor Impaired?

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
National Public Radio

Saturday Night Live often lampoons NPR for its earnestness and supposed lack of humor.

While SNL may have it right about our serious tendencies, and those of our stations, NPR does have a lively culture of humor and satire on programs like Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me and Rewind. Humorous columnists and satirists are a staple on the newsmagazines.

Sometimes attempts at humor fall flat and occasionally boomerang. When that happens, NPR can sound mean and dismissive.

Two incidents in recent weeks:

Car Talk's Christmas Carols

On Car Talk, a recent program for Christmas included some unseasonal yuks which targeted the mentally ill:

TOM: These are... uh... Xmas carols for the psychologically challenged...

RAY: Carols we should all know and love.

TOM: We should... yeah... if you're a schizophrenic, here's your carol. Do you hear what I hear?

How about if you're an obsessive compulsive?

Jingle bell jingle bell jingle bell rock. Jingle bell jingle bell jingle bell rock. Jingle bell jingle bell jingle bell rock...

If you're a borderline personality.

Thoughts of roasting in an open fire...

If you're paranoiac.

RAY: Yeah, yeah...

TOM: Santa Claus is coming to get me.

Multiple personality?

We three kings disoriented are.

And my favorite, dementia.

I think I'll be home for Christmas.

RAY: Those are perfectly politically correct...

After receiving a barrage from offended listeners who know about mental illness either personally or through a family member, and a concerted write-in campaign from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Car Talk did the right thing.

Louie Cronin is a producer on Car Talk. She wrote the following letter to the more than 200 people who wrote in.

We want to apologize again for the material you found offensive on our program. Humor is, by its nature, very subjective. What one person finds funny, another finds troubling. But we now understand why you found our piece on Christmas carols inappropriate and will factor that information into any future comments we make concerning these subjects.

We are opting not to make further comments on the issue on our program. We believe that the issues surrounding mental illness are serious ones, and that there are many journalistic programs in existence that can do much more justice to the complexities of the issue, and the positions you advocate than we can as a humor program.

We have apologized to every listener who has written to complain about our choice of remarks, and we believe that is sufficient in this case. We do appreciate the information you've provided to us about mental illness and the issues that surround it, and we can assure you we will be more sensitive to material that goes on the air in the future.

Letters from Listeners to NPR's On The Media

Another example of humor that lands with a thud happened earlier this month on NPR's On The Media.

The program aired a feature about a pro-Israel lobby group and its campaign against NPR's reporting on the Middle East.

On The Media's hosts are Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield. On the following week, they read letters from listeners who objected to the tone of the report:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week we received a boatload of letters protesting our report by Phillip Martin on the conflict between NPR and pro-Israel groups. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera, listed a number of objections to our piece on its Web site,, and urged its members to write, and many did. And so did many others.

BOB GARFIELD: For instance Joshua Hurwitt of Oswego, New York, notes that "Mr. Martin failed to mention Camera's numerous in-depth studies of NPR as the basis for its charges of pro-Palestinian bias. This," he writes, "leaves listeners with the impression that Camera criticizes the individual story and doesn't examine the sweep of coverage over a long period of time. This is patently false."

Jonathan Reich of Lakeland, Florida, also made that point, adding that "Bias is frequently not perceived by the perpetrator. The people who produced NPR's Middle Eastern news are well-known supporters of the Arab position and thus it is hardly surprising that the bias is there."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Larry Pollak from Columbus, Ohio, says similarly that he was not at all surprised to hear the NPR distortions about Camera. "Among my friends," he writes, "NPR has come to stand for The National Palestinian Radio Network."

BOB GARFIELD: Oy vay iz mir.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oy gevalt! John Klemme from Carouge, Switzerland finds it disconcerting that...

Bernard Greenwald was angered that a serious criticism of On The Media was trivialized and dismissed by the hosts' inclusion of Yiddish expressions:

I am outraged and offended by the sarcastic use of Yiddish expressions following the reading of two letters on the Jan. 5, 2002, edition of the show. Are they sure the writers are Jewish? And more to the point, what relevance does it have? If the letter had come from a citizen of Poland, would they have used any Polish expressions? If black, would they have used "ghetto talk?" If Spanish, "Spanglish?" I think not!... You should be ashamed of yourselves and at the very least, issue an apology.

Dean Cappello is On The Media's executive producer. He wrote to one of the offended letter-writers:

We did not intend any offense during our letters segment of a few weeks ago when Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield used Yiddish slang after reading a listener letter. We often use humor to punctuate journalism, commentary and other parts of the program. This was one more example. We have, in fact, heard from many people who regarded it as funny.

Our hosts were using the expressions to display humorously their dismay at a letter, not yours incidentally, that referred to NPR as "National Palestinian Radio." We find that charge without merit. And I can further assure you that their reaction had nothing to do with our thinking the letter writer was of any particular ethnic or racial background.

Humor is a delicate instrument. Occasionally it is also a weapon, used as a rapier or a broadsword. In both these cases, many listeners wrote to say they felt NPR should have exercised better judgment.

In my opinion, the listeners were right: Both jokes were more of a weak attempt at wit and unworthy of public radio's better instincts and normally inclusive humor.

While NPR programs should always take risks, there is always a chance that what sounds funny inside a studio isn't quite so amusing on the other end of the microphone. This time, the jokes landed with a clunk. But that doesn't mean that NPR should model itself on political correctness and earnestness, a la SNL.

Listeners can contact me at

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman